Planet Sderot: OU Israel Visits the Embattled City
Last week, after a particularly harrowing weekend in Sderot, I walked into work and immediately noticed a look on Rabbi Avi Berman, the Director of OU Israel’s face. He said to me, “that’s it, enough! I know we have invested so much in Sderot, we have raised funds, sent teams, and currently work more in Sderot than any other city in Israel, but still, I can’t have us sitting here in Jerusalem while they are in so much pain in Sderot. So that’s it, we are all going down to Sderot, in two days”.
Two days? I thought, how would we organize our entire office, and find an appropriate schedule in such a small timeframe? But in truth, when our brothers and sisters are suffering so much it is not so difficult to clear everyone’s schedule and find the people to meet and the places to visit in Sderot.
As the day of the visit drew to a close and we heard countless stories of the ‘code red’ alarms and the frightening whistle of the Kassam, we ended up hearing that alarm in real time, feeling the sense of helplessness at the random raining of a murderous missile, and all ran for cover. We escaped unscathed, but one Kassam is no comparison to what these heroic people experience every single day in this forgotten city.
Where else in the world do people go about their business, sending their kids to school, policemen to the streets, sanitation workers to the trucks–all under constant fire of a missile which has the power to take apart an entire floor of a home? What other country would allow over 5700 missiles to be shot into their universally accepted sovereign territory without an intense and definitive response?
In the words of Yael Spanglett, who together with her husband live and choose to live in Sderot despite the terror, Sderot is not simply a different city, but another planet altogether. It has different laws than anywhere else, but it has different citizens as well—bold, courageous, determined and spiritual.
It is these people whom we met today, they represent our pride, our front line, and our reason that we left the day feeling that despite the terror, ‘netzach yisrael lo yeshaker’ (the eternity of Israel will be forever true).
Morning: A Somber Welcome
As you enter Sderot you are confronted by a large sign which reads “after 5700 missiles, have we not suffered enough?” Eerily, next to it is another sign pointing to the cemetery where 10 victims of the Kassam campaign who gave up their lives are resting.
It is a sobering sign which conjures up feelings of incredulity, shock, frustration, and compassion for the citizens who are hurting, in pain, but not giving up. We learned that valuable lesson everywhere we went that day.
Makom Balev: OU Israel’s NCSY in Sderot (and much much more!)
We begin our day in a bomb shelter, and are given a debriefing from Elad Attia and Elyashiv Buchbut two remarkable and courageous young men in Sderot. Both are counselors in our youth group called Makom Balev. Both spend their time and energy creating programs, telling stories, learning with and confiding in the tens of high school boys who join together after school to find solace? Advice? Normalcy? A few minutes to not have to think about where they have to hide next? The answer is probably many of these things and much more.
Elyashiv and Elad are advisors but also Yeshiva students as well as members of Magen David Edom, medical volunteers acting as a Rapid Response Team. They spoke about the most recent catastrophe; it started when 8 year old Tuito ventured out of his house to buy a birthday present for his father. When he heard the siren he knew he had twenty seconds to run to the concrete fortified shelter, but this time there were only ten seconds. On the way, he was struck by shrapnel of the Kassam and it severed major arteries in his leg. Ultimately, this soccer playing boy lost most of his right leg. But each story of tragedy and despair on this day is lined with a spiritual feeling of hope as a testament to the faith and unique responsibility each boy and girl accept upon themselves in this city. Later on that day the high school principal told us that Matan Cohen, a boy of 13 who lost part of his leg in a missile strike last year, went to visit the boy in the hospital to give him encouragement and support.
Superheroes of Sderot
And yet, in line with the incomprehensibility of the paralysis of the government, there is also the remarkably incomprehensible heroism of those who continue to live, teach, raise their family and succeed in Sderot. Guy Nagar (Director of Makom Balev, Sderot) and his wife choose to live in Sderot and endure the terror attempting to foster a community built on chesed (loving-kindness), emunah (faith) and belief in the mission of acting as the front lines of Israel against its enemies.
Yael Spanglett works in hi-tech, her husband in Soroka hospital. She speaks to us in a makeshift shul taken from a cafe and tells us what its like to live in Sderot. She moved here eight years ago and understands this place to be surrealistic. She plays a recording on her phone; it is the whistle of a missile falling. Sometimes you have twenty seconds to run for cover, other times you have two seconds. she laments the absurdity of living in Israel and not being defended. She calls it planet Sderot.
When asked the obvious question, What are you still doing here? Why are you not leaving this city”? She responds with pride: “We are here to stay, we have amazing friends and we feel we can’t abandon others who can’t leave. Also educationally we want to teach our children what it means to fight for your country just by living here and spreading goodness around.
Guy speaks of the remarkable feeling of community on their own, remarkable sense of identity and belonging. Guy and his wife adopted a British young soldier while he is in the army. Can you imagine a family in Sderot adopting kids to watch over them while they are in Israel?
Afternoon, the Sarah Peretz Miracle
Direct hits from Kassams while you are in the house usually means funerals. The remarkable act of God’s protection is that the Kassams most often miss their mark, or when they hit a home the family is not there. Then there are the stories which despite their tragic elements nevertheless send shivers down your spine realizing that this was truly an act of divine intervention.
Sarah Peretz’s Story
Friday evening in the Peretz house has been the same for the last 45 years ever since Sarah came with her family from Morocco. In their traditional home they welcome the Shabbat queen in their family room and their ten grandchildren come and play on the stairs and in the play room upstairs while Mr. Peretz and his sons in-law sit and recite the Friday evening piyut and divrei torah. In addition in the last few years, at the end of the meal their children just married would return to the upstairs bedroom where they currently live.
This Shabbat was different. On Friday morning Mrs. Peretz didn’t feel right. She sensed something was wrong and she told her husband we are not having the kids over today. What? They told her that it is so important for the family to be together in these difficult times, but the matriarch was unmoved. They ended up sitting with the elder couple and their newly married children.
That night, the Shabbat dinner went a bit longer than usual, despite the lack of grandchildren playing upstairs, they enjoyed a quiet meal with a lot of divrei torah and beautiful songs of the Sephardic heritage. Suddenly, at the end of the meal a warning shouted out—“tzeva adom, tzeva adom” and not twenty seconds later but only five seconds passed before they heard a big deafening BOOM, the kassam struck their house! Where? Upstairs, the whole second floor was destroyed in seconds. The stairs where the kids would be playing, the bedroom where the young couple would be sleeping, all of it decimated. But they were alone, they were downstairs away from harm, they were guarded by Shabbat, by their spirit, by God Himself. She also praised the Yeshiva boys and counselors of Makom Balev for continuing to inject the city with positive energy despite the difficult times.
Mrs. Peretz cries at the torment, the hardship and the sadness she feels knowing her ten grandchildren though protected from harm today will be in harm’s way tomorrow. She nevertheless sees the hand of God in all of their actions, in their salvation at the hand of evil and in their ability to withstand the insanity that is living in planet Sderot.
Kiruv as a Response to Terror
In the heart of Sderot lies one of the biggest Hesder Yeshivot in Israel—Yeshivat Sderot. Over the period of the intense bombing the number of students has risen not lowered. This is due to the mission each student is imbibed with by Rabbi Fendel, the Rosh Yeshiva: Your Torah learning must be joined together with involvement in the community, acts of chesed, kiruv and connection. We at OU Israel are very honored to be working closely with the Yeshiva in our Kiruv efforts of Lev Yehudi. We were hosted by Rabbi Fendel and learned of the remarkable work they are doing on a day to day basis. Through our Kiruv programs together we provide 18 shiurim enhancing the lives of 570 individuals a week.
Singing and Dancing
We entered the Amit high school where some of the children were missing due to kassam attacks in the past. The school is only half fortified which calls for a unique educational method of evacuating and returning from class to class sometimes seven or eight times a day. The boys accept the reality and attempt to concentrate regardless of the insanity around them.
We met with the Principal and as we entered the classroom we broke into song and dance with the twenty or thirty wide eyed, fourteen year olds. After a few minutes Rabbi Berman stood up and offered words of encouragement to the students, calling them future leaders due to the ability to withstand the trials and tribulations of a Sderot existence over the last years.
Evening: A Sign of Light Amidst Darkness
While it is heartwarming to hear her story it is overshadowed by the hundreds of stories we hear of kids in shock, parents unemployed, elderly injuring themselves running during a missile attack, and the scores of other circumstances which make their lives so heartbreaking. Our job at OU Israel is to continue to serve the Sderot community, stand firm in support of these courageous Jews and help them in any way we can until the evil is destroyed and this community will once again return to its peaceful picturesque nature.
As we departed from Sderot we noticed a glimpse of a rainbow peeking out from behind the gloomy skies. The sliver represented our experience of a city striving to find its light, strengthening despite its being barraged daily, hoping that just as the biblical rainbow was a harbinger for an end of destruction and a dawn of a peaceful new beginning, so too we wish and pray that Sderot sees no more violence and finds its new dawn, with its empowered, inspired, and impassioned citizens to live and thrive in Eretz Yisrael.
Rabbi Avi Baumol is the Director of Communications for OU Israel
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.